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Posted: October 09, 2012

Apply pressure, but don’t push your luck

The keys to finding the right balance

Derek Murphy

At risk of sounding like a yoga teacher or a self-help guru, I think most people strive for balance. We want city budgets to be balanced, our football teams to find balance as a cohesive unit and most of us aspire to have some type of work-life balance.

Now, we could hold a healthy debate around our definitions of work-life balance, but I’m not sure if that would be a good use of anyone’s time. Instead, I’d like to take a closer look at finding balance as it relates to a very specific leadership skill: Push/Pressure. This competency can be an extremely difficult leadership area for some to master.

In short, push/pressure in the workplace setting is where managers and leaders need to strike the right balance between pushing for results and the amount of pressure they’re applying to reach those results. After all, the need to use pressure to achieve results is often a fact of life in organizations. It’s not often as easy as ask once, nicely, and get exactly the results you’re looking for in return.

A certain amount of pressure and energy works best depending on the situation. But at the same time, many leaders fail to understand how to apply pressure effectively and oftentimes their efforts undermine the motivation of their coworkers. Pressure is an important tactical skill that should be used to communicate urgency, importance, and accountability. Effective leaders must also push occasionally, and it is important they learn how to do that successfully.

Keep in mind that this skill, if over-used or over-relied upon, can be an inhibitor to effectiveness, and therefore more pressure is not necessarily better.

As I’m sure you’re aware of, emotion, pressure and passion can easily be used to excess. Mistakes are bound to happen among teams. I know, big surprise, right?

Leaders who push too much and are overly critical of mistakes might run the risk of alienating people. Your direct reports may be too intimidated to talk with you, which means, you have not only killed a culture of innovation, but you can say goodbye to any chances of your employees generating new ideas for ways of improving business and work processes. You can’t possibly do everything, so it’s especially critical for you to address the issues that get in the way of, or hinder the development of, you’re most important goals.

On the flip side, leaders who are too easygoing or are overly tolerant of mistakes may be perceived as too forgiving of below average work. Instead of being the one to push people around in the workplace, you are viewed as a "push-over."

The solution: Finding the balance on how to use push and pressure tactics.

No one said being a leader is easy, especially when it comes to push/pressure. Here are some tips to apply just the right amount.

• Pressure is a skill that should be used sparingly and strategically. Are you comfortable using pressure at strategic moments? Experiment using pressure and get feedback about its impact on your peers.

• Determine if your expectations are appropriate, or whether they are excessive, by comparing workloads and expectations with peers.

• Learn a variety of techniques for motivating your team members. Consider that each person responds to different types of motivators, so learn to tailor your strategy to the needs of your team members.

• Look at your goal setting and planning processes to see where you can stress the importance of achieving goals.

• Monitor how others perceive you when you are excited or expressing passion about a particular idea or action. Sometimes passion becomes confused with excessive drive or aggressiveness.

• Study ways to critique work that are constructive rather than perceived to be destructive by others.

• Help peers maintain timelines for achieving goals so that extreme push is not needed as the deadline approaches.

As you can tell, when it comes to push/pressure choose your battles carefully. In the end, the best leaders are the ones that inspire others to do their best work without pushing them beyond their tolerance. All it takes is finding the right balance. No yoga teacher required.

Derek Murphy is CEO of TBC, a global assessment company with over 4 decades of experience, specializing in 360s and survey customization. Our hosting platform, TruScore®, allows you to manage all of your talent management assessments in one central location. Request a demo to discover why some of the most recognized brands in the Fortune 1000 chose TBC.

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